November is a weird month. The beautiful fall colors of October are gone, but the crisp bite of December has yet to arrive. Things are coming due and end of year lists are being made, as if there isn’t a whole other month left. November is an inhale, a hesitation, a glitch in the timestream. So here are my ten favorite speculative fiction stories from that strange eleventh hour pause.
“AP Practical Literary Theory Suggests This Is A Quest (Or: What Danny Did Over Spring Break)” by Isabel J. Kim
Kicking things off with an entertaining story about four teenagers who inadvertently find themselves on a quest after one of them dies. Lucky for them, they live in a world of “Get Out Of Death Free” cards and tolls paid by sacrificing a memory. Their “mythic journey to regain his life” takes them to a sentient pool where they must face their greatest test. And get Dunkin’ along the way. If Isabel J. Kim is taking requests, I’d love a full length novel or graphic novel set in this world, please and thank you. Danny, Rilla, Asher, and Georgie are too much fun to never see again.
Cast of Wonders (November 16, 2021, 472)
“On a Tuesday afternoon, I was sifted into a terracotta urn hand-painted by my mother. I watched her from the center shelf above the sink, dipping her coarse brush into acrylics called sunshine and tangerine, and wondered if she’d ever known my favorite color was turquoise.” A beautiful, sad story about a spirit who sticks around after his death to keep an eye on his mother. Freydís Moon touches on grief and loss, of remembering but learning to let go.
The Deadlands (November 2021, issue 7)
If you told me that “Lajos and His Bees” was actually recorded by the Grimms, I’d be inclined to believe you. K.A. Teryna perfectly matches the tone and style of those old Eastern European folktales, the ones full of blood and revenge and tragic deaths. This haunting story centers on a strange boy, Lajos, who grows into an even stranger man. In his hideout deep in the woods, he communes with wild bees. When he tries to take a bride, things go about as well as they always do in these kinds of fairy tales.
The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction (November/December 2021)
I don’t want to talk too much about the details beyond the surface level because one of the best parts of this story is how Jaxton Kimble gradually reveals information about Shanna and her father. It’s like seeing a bunch of paint splotches slowly coalesce into a stunning piece of art as you step back and take in the whole thing. The short version is this: Shanna’s father is psychic and leaves her notes about future events. It’s lovely all around.
Diabolical Plots (November 15, 2021, #81B)
Well, that hit me right in the feels. That’s two stories in a row dealing with identity and trying to come to terms with your personal truth while struggling to get others to see you for who you really are. Crois M.’s is a lot sadder than Kimble’s, which I also kind of love. It’s that contrast of queer experiences, how some of us feel lost but have a good support group to keep us going while others have nothing and end up feeling broken and isolated. This very short story is about a child that isn’t human, an android perhaps, but who desperately wants to be even as their mother pushes them away. I think most queer people have felt a like little bit of both stories.
Daily Science Fiction (November 11, 2021)
If you’ve read this column before, you probably know of my obsession with unusual narrative structures. So it should be no surprise that J.L. Akagi’s piece, written like an online review for a restaurant, earned a spot on this list. The reviewer, Tom, and his husband, an undead Japanese man born in the 16th century, stumble upon a place serving ozoni so delicious that it dredges up long lost memories for the diners. Funny, weird, and totally engaging, I loved this story.
khōréō (volume 1, issue 4)
Kehkashan Khalid reimagines the story of Maham Anga, 16th century wetnurse and the power behind the throne of the Mughal emperor Akbar. But this story about power, imperialism, and patriarchy comes with a twist of magic. Maham Anga raises the future emperor alongside her own son, positioning them both in close proximity to ultimate power. Where Adham squanders his power, his mother savors and cultivates hers. In a world where men do not tolerate harem girls rising above their station, Maham Anga claims her territory anyway.
Fantasy Magazine (November 2021, issue 73)
“It all began with a scrap of fabric I used to test the machine’s tension. Over and over and over, white cotton thread over navy blue twill, the same line of bumps and stitches.” A seamstress making jumpsuits and space suits discovers a coded message from her long-dead grandmother hidden in the stitching. The messages hold a grave warning, but the seamstress doesn’t know what to do about it. Will she be able to act on the warnings and change the future or will she be forced to sit back and watch it all unfold? I liked how much Anna Martino kept me on my toes with this one. At no point could I predict what was going to happen. A clever concept.
Clarkesworld (November 2021)
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read the Chronicles of Narnia, but certainly more than a dozen. Most of the time I skip the ending of The Last Battle, because it always felt profoundly unfair to me with regards to Susan. Apparently Izzy Wasserstein feels the same as me because this story gives her the ending she deserved. It’s a short piece, but sharp and brazen in execution. “Death takes much and in return it offers Susan P— only clarity.”
Lightspeed Magazine (November 2021)
In a future version of our world where the coast of Nigeria has been drowned by the Atlantic, a submersible crew heads into the “False Bottom…a bleak continental floor of debris that put the darkness of 4000 feet of surrounding ocean to shame.” There they seek to rescue the Ijapa, another submersible that recently disappeared. The crew find something terrible down there at the bottom of the sea, something deadly and alive and sentient. Uchechukwu Nwaka’s creativity is on full display here. Lots of fascinating worldbuilding in a short amount of time.
Hexagon (November 2021, issue 7)
Alex Brown is an Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).